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Nov 2015

What’s in a Name?

Recently, the World Health Organization (“WHO”), issued best practices guidelines on how to name new human infectious diseases. The point of these guidelines is to hopefully reduce the negative effects that names of these diseases have on “nations, economies and people.”[1]  An example of how the name of a disease can affect people can be seen in the 2009 “swine flu” outbreak. Due to the name by which the disease became known, Egyptians thought pigs caused the disease and, therefore, slaughtered almost all of the pigs. This not only took away money from the people who raised the pigs, but also took away a food source.[2]

The WHO’s best practices guidelines recommend that disease names avoid “geographic locations (e.g. Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, Spanish Flu, Rift Valley fever), people’s names (e.g. Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, Chagas disease), species of animal or food (e.g. swine flu, bird flu, monkey pox), cultural, population, industry or occupational references (e.g. legionnaires), and terms that incite undue fear (e.g. unknown, fatal, epidemic).”[3]  Instead, the WHO recommends that disease names “consist of generic descriptive terms, based on the symptoms that the disease causes (e.g. respiratory disease, neurologic syndrome, watery diarrhea) and more specific descriptive terms when robust information is available on how the disease manifests, who it affects, its severity or seasonality (e.g. progressive, juvenile, severe, winter). If the pathogen that causes the disease is known, it should be part of the disease name (e.g. coronavirus, influenza virus, salmonella).”[4]  An example of a disease name that follows these recommendations is severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS.

It should be noted that these new guidelines “do not replace the existing ICD system, but rather provide an interim solution prior to the assignment of a final ICD disease name.”[5]

[4] Id.
[5] Id.


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